Rewards of Long-Form

About halfway through Africa Express’ joyous, humanistic new recording of Terry Riley’s In C, the instruments begin to drop out one by one. Eventually, only a couple are left, playing fragmented, exploratory motifs. The music seems to float in space, drifting in almost-silence between the two halves. Then, without warning, a musician speaks.

It’s such a surprising moment, so fresh and different. It’s one of those moments that makes us fall in love with music. But here’s the catch: without the preceding 20 minutes of music, without the following 15, it would just be storytelling with musical accompaniment. You can get that from a hundred audiobooks on Audible. The fact that it exists in the midst of an exuberant musical celebration is what makes it magical. The moment needs the context of the whole.

The first music recordings, for technical reasons, were limited to about three minutes’ length: whence the three-minute pop song. When technology finally allowed for albums, they emerged as unimaginative collections of those songs. Only later did musicians—most famously the Beatles with Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—start to think carefully about the order of the songs, about how the songs flowed into each other, how each fit and contrasted with those on either side of it, and functioned as a part of the whole.

This was new to pop, but it’s been a strength of classical music for centuries. Musical flow has been paramount to connecting smaller parts of large works from the concertos of Vivaldi and Bach (and earlier) right up to the music of Ligeti and Reich. Although most people’s introduction to classical music is through small pieces of larger works,1 good long-form music gives you something you can’t get anywhere else. Listening takes more work, but the rewards are greater.

Take Beethoven’s fifth symphony: the opening is probably the most famous four notes in music, the legendary (and probably apocryphal) “Fate knocking at the door,” used in cartoons to signify doom, and as morse code by the Allied forces in World War Two to proclaim victory. But knowing only that movement (or just the motif) gives you just a fraction of the story. The tempestuous theme comes back again and again throughout the symphony, until a genre-defying moment where it’s obliterated by a glorious C Major daybreak.

If you only know the first movement, you hear the challenge but not the triumph.

If you only know the fourth,2 it’s an army charging onto an empty field.

Recently, I wrote about why I think streaming services are bad for many musicians, and why I’m optimistic about the future of music regardless. I think I’m right, but I also hope I am, and it’s for moments like these. It doesn’t matter whether you’re listening to a symphony or a rock album: they’re only possible in longer works.

For fans of long-form music, streaming services present a lot of problems: the intrusive ads, the relatively poor audio quality, the insistence on track shuffling. None of these problems is insurmountable. (On Spotify, two of them can be surmounted by paying for the service.)

But the breadth of choice alone discourages spending substantial time with any artist. You’ve just finished listening to the first movement of the fifth symphony, and you’d love to go on to the second, but Bolero is right there in recommendations. This isn’t down to attention span, but to context.3 Streaming services benefit from showing you how broad their catalogue is, because that’s what encourages people to stay. This is borne out in Spotify’s recently-released numbers infographic: only two of the artists in their top albums (at numbers four and five) even figure in their top tracks (at one and nine).

Long-form music is a poor match for streaming on the musician’s side too: a stream of a seventeen-minute symphonic movement4 pays out the same as one of a three-minute pop song. So if music were a simple game of financial incentives, musicians would “aim to maximise their profits” by releasing shorter and shorter works. Thankfully, many musicians are more interested in artistic incentives than financial ones—who gets into music to make money?—and they’ll just carry on making music. Of course they still have to make a living, so in the long term I think a lot of them will decide that they’re better off selling their music than letting people stream it.

Maybe it’s true that streaming services will control the bulk of the music industry, but there’ll always be musicians interested in making long-form music, and I think (and I hope) that there’ll always be people willing to buy it, to pay the little extra it costs and to spend the extra effort to for a greater reward. They won’t be mainstream, but then they almost never have been. The internet is an Eden for obscure interests, and for small, passionate communities to develop around them.

  1. The first movement of the Moonlight sonata, the first movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the overture to William Tell, the first movement of Spring from the Four Seasons. You know the stuff I mean.  ↩
  2. Who only knows the fourth?  ↩
  3. I can’t stand hearing people whinge about attention spans. Modern audiences have more than proved to possess attention spans at least as long as their predecessors. Years-long TV dramas like Breaking Bad and the advent of the three-hour blockbuster are testament to this.  ↩
  4. Or a twelve-minute prog rock ballad, if that’s your thing.  ↩